24 April 2018
I can’t tell you how honoured I feel to be with you today. I am delighted to be at Ethiopia's oldest university, and to celebrate with you the 70th year of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, at a time of potentially vital renewal in this country.
The Universal Declaration was drawn up in 1948 as a set of commitments which States hoped would save the world from certain destruction. Its first words are as follows:
"Recognition of the inherent dignity and of the equal and inalienable rights of all members of the human family is the foundation of freedom, justice and peace in the world."
This was a great and comprehensive shift in thinking. Knowing that any new global conflict would be even more destructive than the two world wars they had just experienced, States sought to solve the root causes of conflict. To prevent violence would take much more than a focus on arming nation states and establishing military treaties. Peace – sustainable peace – could only come by upholding every individual's human rights.
These were not idle philosophical ideas. The Universal Declaration was drafted and adopted by States. They promised justice and the impartial rule of law, free from arbitrary decisions and torture – an end to the tyranny and fear which had ruled so many people's lives for generations. They vowed to end discrimination of all kinds, which harms and humiliates individuals, and obstructs their contributions to the common good. They promised to build societies which would be strong because they would be fair, with equal access to fundamental services and opportunities, and measures to uphold human dignity. They committed themselves to transparent, inclusive governance, to ensure service to the people.
This vision brought tremendous dividends to those countries which adopted it – measurable benefits, in lives saved; prosperity gained; peoples freed from tyranny, bigotry and exploitation. Millions of individuals have gained justice for their rights, and national and international protection when those rights were wronged. Because every law and measure that upholds human rights – every step towards greater equality, and freedom from want and fear – sets off a great chain of cause and effect; these steps are both vital in themselves and vitalising to the other steps, creating an environment of greater justice, broader opportunities, and stronger, more harmonious and responsible societies.
I am not going to pretend that movement towards progress was ever easy or perfect. Over the past seven decades, numerous governments have failed to uphold their commitments to protect and promote human rights. Many people have faced oppression, unspeakable violence and deprivation. And nowhere have rights been irreversibly achieved. In every country, it seems, a group of people or aspiring leaders undermine or attack fundamental principles based on fabricated pretexts. Today, the Universal Declaration faces enormous challenges: a rising tide of hatred directed against minorities; renewed attempts to control the choices and freedoms of women; a deepening contempt for international law and multilateral discussion. As you enter into your careers, your generation of young people across the world will face great difficulties in ensuring a strong foundation for freedom, justice and peace in the world.
But there is real hope. Ethiopia, like the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, has weathered many storms. This is a country with an ancient and remarkable history which has brought inspiration to many people across Africa and the world. It has experienced turmoil, oppression, hunger and deprivation. But throughout this history, women and men, young people and old, from every part of the country – have kept fundamental values and principles alive. They have insisted that government should serve the people – should serve the needs and rights of all the people. They have demanded transparent government, an impartial rule of law and accountability for all those who violate rights.
Last year, when I first visited Ethiopia, I encouraged a number of essential reforms, to widen the space for democracy and civic action, and to ensure more participatory, accountable and transparent governance.
I urged the release of political leaders and hundreds of other individuals whose detention appeared to be motivated by anger at their criticism rather than any real security threat. I requested that investigations be undertaken into the killings of hundreds of people during the demonstrations, with a review of the thousands of arrests which took place.
Today, I am heartened by many signs that the Government has expressed its commitment to effecting real and far-reaching change. It is far too early to analyse Prime Minister Abiy's record, but his acceptance speech to Parliament earlier this month was genuinely inspiring.
Dr Abiy stated clearly that “democracy cannot be achieved without respect for freedom and rights. And freedom is not a gift from government but is inherent in human dignity that everyone is born with’’. He emphasised that the rights of citizens to participate at all levels of governance, and to criticise their government, must be respected. “Difference in opinion is not a curse but a blessing,” he said – a formulation I applaud, and which I intend to quote again and again. I was impressed by his commitment to openness and impressed by his apology for the irrevocable damage suffered by so many people during the repression of the recent protests. His speech addressed many of the criticisms which I believe motivated those demonstrations in various regions. And although a speech may be just that – a speech – it raises tremendous expectations for action.
What action should be taken to begin the great chain of cause and effect that can move this country, like all countries, towards a more just and sustainable future?
In some countries, people eat injera, and in others it is pasta or bread – but all are made from grains, and all are nourishing. I am not here to impose a single model; every country builds human rights in its own way. But in taking genuine steps to uphold human rights, all countries must move in the same direction – towards greater equality, greater participation by the people, stronger justice, greater social harmony and more inclusive development.
During my last visit I shared with senior officials my impression that the protests should be viewed as a response to the failure to provide space for the people of this country to express their needs and critical views – especially for population groups which have in practice been to some degree excluded from participation in decisions; and youth, who constitute 40% of the population and many of whom are unemployed.
I emphasised that the disproportionate or unnecessary use of force by law enforcement officers against unarmed protestors, and alleged arbitrary arrests, must be investigated in an independent and impartial manner, with those responsible held to account. Firstly, to ensure justice for the harm done to the individuals concerned – but also because, just as the purpose of government is to serve the people, the purpose of policing is to protect people's rights, not crush them. Strong measures towards real accountability and justice will help to re-establish trust among the public that their broader rights will be respected.
A third key area for what I hope will be swift action is the need to reform restrictive legislation on civil society, to end restrictions and censorship of the media, and to alter the overly broad legal definition of terrorism, which appears to have led, in the past, to the criminalisation and oppression of legitimate free assembly and free speech.
Terrorism exists; it is a horrific scourge, as the people of the Horn of Africa know well. To term non-violent protestors "terrorists" does not heighten security; it is counter-productive, driving many people to oppose society. And measures which repress and curtail the voices of the people do not benefit society. On the contrary, for greater social harmony and sustainable development, it is essential that everyone in society – including youth – feel engaged, feel they have a stake and a voice in the common good. Moreover, all governments need to be held to the mark by the vital investigative work of independent media.
This brings me to my fourth area for reflection: development. Ethiopia's economic growth over the past decade has been impressive. But growth alone is not enough to ensure that development is sustainable. I encourage measures to enable greater participation by the people in decisions about development, so that they are taken based on the common good, with decisive steps to combat inequalities, corruption and any tendency to take decisions for the private benefit of privileged individuals. Every member of society needs to be educated, engaged, and able and empowered to contribute, in order to meet the goals of the UN's 2030 Sustainable Development Agenda, and the African Union's Agenda 2063.
Although they unjustly endure discriminatory and cruel practices in both the private and public spheres, women continue to be powerful drivers of change, and this needs to be fully recognised and acted upon. Women’s and girl’s empowerment is not only a matter of basic human rights: it is critical to breaking intergenerational cycles of poverty, inequality and injustice across all nations, including here in Ethiopia.
You will recall the words of Emperor Haile Selassie I, 55 years ago at the United Nations General Assembly. They continue to resonate: they are said to have inspired Bob Marley's hit song "War".
There is no single magic formula, no one simple step... Peace is a day-to-day problem, the product of a multitude of events and judgements. Peace is not an "is", it is a "becoming".... Until bigotry and prejudice and malicious and inhuman self-interest have been replaced by understanding and tolerance and good-will," we will not know peace.
It is achievable.
In the words of the Ethiopian poet, Lemn Sissay
"How do you do it?" said night
"How do you wake and shine?"
"I keep it simple." said light
"One day at a time"
Nobody can know what the dawn will bring. The fate of this country, like that of every country, will depend in part on chance; on the circumstances of a regional and international environment which no one State can fully control – but it will also depend on the commitment, the ingenuity, the curiosity, the abilities, the sense of common destiny and the empowerment of its people. It will depend on you. It will depend, very crucially, on your determination and capacity for transformation and reform.
I trust that you will stand up for the rights of your fellow country-men and -women, and that this country will stand tall and strong on the firm foundations of freedom, rights and justice. The UN Human Rights Office will be strongly supportive of genuine and positive reforms to make the government more responsive to the needs of the people, and to improve your future.